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Weird Fission: Thom Yorke Detonates Atoms For Peace

By Marty Sartini Garner; photos by Michael Muller on March 20, 2013

 

Weird Fission: Thom Yorke Detonates Atoms For Peace

Thom Yorke is in Chicago. In a way. He and visual artist Stanley Donwood are sitting on a couch in a study somewhere in England, with rows of CDs and a framed copy of The White Stripes’ De Stijl hanging above their heads. The pubs will be opening soon. In Chicago, Yorke and Donwood appear in only two dimensions. A scrim of distortion falls over their faces now and then, and the window through which we speak to one another shifts arbitrarily between aspect ratios as it adjusts to minuscule variations in our broadband speed.

 

 

They’re here, in England and on my screen in Chicago, to talk about Amok, the debut release from Yorke’s project Atoms for Peace. Yorke’s pedigree has been exalted to that rarified air that tends to choke the life out of things and render them rote, but it still bears repeating: He is the singer and a founding member of Radiohead, and thus the public face of what is arguably the most important (and certainly the most referenced) pop-rock group of the past two decades. Donwood is his advance man, the sole artist responsible for forging the striking visual aesthetic Radiohead has projected since their 1995 album The Bends. Donwood is also a constant presence in the studio, and his lack of musical acumen (“I find it difficult to distinguish a bass from a drum,” he says) makes him a valuable resource, a kind of moderator or transliterator who’s often able to put into words what Yorke can only put into music.

 

What Yorke and his collaborators put into Amok is relentless, and driving, and weighted with the kind of heaviness that needs the cushion of a robust rhythm section. Bass supercomputer Flea, all-star drummer Joey Waronker and poly-limbed percussionist Mauro Refosco hammered out the album’s pulsing core, which Yorke and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich then spangled and tamed with crinkled guitar and synthetic dust. It’s unlike anything Yorke has done before. 

 

 

He sits back on the couch with his arms crossed in front of his chest, at ease. His beard turns from brown at the cheeks to grey at the jaw in a subtle gradient, which somehow sharpens his features to a point somewhere around his nose. “I’m just getting used to the fact that you have to look at someone looking down at the corner of where you’re looking when you’re Skyping, rather than trying to look there,” Donwood says, pointing at the screen on the table in England. Yorke grins and sits up, then leans in with one ringed finger coming toward the camera. His fingertip covers it, and my screen goes black.

 

Yorke put Atoms for Peace together in 2009 to help him separate the numerous strands that made up his 2006 solo LP The Eraser. “I’d run into John Frusciante and Flea a few times backstage at Chili Peppers gigs, and there was one time when they were going on about The Eraser, and how they were really into it,” Yorke explains. “And that got me thinking.” Yorke had been friends with Waronker for years, and had been looking for an excuse to work on a new project with him. “I sent the email around and said, ‘If they get back to me soon, then I’ll do it. Otherwise, it’s a stupid idea, forget it.’ Flea and Joey got back to me within an hour. So it was on.” 

 

The Eraser was assembled from years’ worth of sound clips Yorke gathered while touring and rehearsing with Radiohead. He and Godrich processed the clips beyond recognition and slotted them into space via laptop. It’s a claustrophobic album, and it seems vulgar to listen to it through anything but headphones. The rhythms that Flea, Waronker and Refosco were recruited to recreate were made not only from percussive found sounds and the laptop’s moist drum loops, but from the snips of Yorke and Godrich’s fresh cuts. The mechanical edit itself becomes a dot of rhythm. Even the clearly struck piano chords that open the album—and go on to function as the closest thing The Eraser has to a launchpad—are clipped before they finish ringing. The assemblage of sound is pulled toward that center, but pulled in the manner of thousands of resilient granules of metal filings towards a particularly weak magnet. The group’s first attempts to force those stipples of sound out of live instruments was arduous. “When we were doing the bassline for the song ‘Atoms for Peace,’ the timing on it is actually really fucking weird,” Yorke says. “If you sit down and put any analysis into it at all, it’s really peculiar. It took Flea quite a while to get that. Things like that, I really love—you watch such amazing musicians that you really respect pushing themselves.” 

 

The Eraser tour, for which the group was billed as “Thom Yorke????” or simply “??????,” kickstarted something in Yorke. “For me, the whole thing was born out of the excitement of going on this tour. It was only a couple of weeks but, by the end of it, it seemed to open a bit of a door.” The band is “driven from a different place” from Radiohead, he says, where the democratic mandate often slows artistic progress. Atoms for Peace’s open-ended administration—Yorke says it “browns me off something chronic” when people call them a supergroup—is founded on different principles. When the group reconvened in LA in 2010 for three days of recording, Yorke stuck by their founding document. “We were just going on the merits of what we found exciting,” he says. “I’m throwing them things out of the computers and stuff and asking them to imitate them and seeing where it goes.” 

 

Despite his reputation, Yorke’s particular genius doesn’t rest in his intellectual capabilities, but in the ways he is able to challenge his prodigiously talented friends. It’s fascinating to watch him interact with Donwood. The artist is patient and still, and chooses his words carefully. Yorke laughs, rocks back and forth and spills backwards onto the couch when something tickles him. Donwood tells me about his own temptation to draw using computer-generated vectors whose perfection is guaranteed by their motherboard. He appreciates the precision, but the vectors lack the inevitable errors of humanity that give his work its particular character. Yorke asks whether Donwood ever had to learn how to draw a straight line in school. Then Yorke mentions, casually, that he’d learned in his A-levels (roughly the British equivalent of AP-level courses) that there is no such thing as a straight line.

 

“What?” Donwood says, incredulous.

 

“Eventually it would be a circle,” Yorke says.

 

“Because any straight line will have errors in it that keep it from being perfectly straight?” I ask.

 

“You could mathematically argue that no straight line is straight, that it would eventually curve and become a circle,” Yorke says.

 

 

Yorke’s A-level lesson was likely on non-Euclidean geometry, which argues that any straight line, whether drawn by hand or by a computer, is in fact the arcing segment of a circle. The argument challenges the Euclidean understanding of straight lines, which rely on an ideal condition—that is, perfectly flat, two-dimensional planes. But since our world and space are three-dimensional and spherical, the thinking goes, Euclid’s flat lines bend when forced into the real world.

 

When Yorke says that he was merely tossing sketches of songs at the group during their LA sessions, he’s not being flip; he couldn’t even count off the rhythm. “Mauro and Joey would say, ‘What about this bit here, what’s the measure?’ I mean, honestly, I was hearing the fucking ‘one’ in a different place,” he laughs. Godrich would trace the threads of rhythm back to the spool and count off for the players. “I was sort of going, ‘That feels good!’ ‘That doesn’t feel good!’ That was the extent of my involvement,” Yorke says. Godrich culled the hours of tape in real time by noting every moment Yorke declared something good. “It was a good thing I wasn’t in charge of finding all of the parts,” he jokes. “I would have literally listened to everything from scratch.”

 

What Atoms for Peace found embedded in The Eraser’s sonic DNA, right alongside the swatches of Yorke’s piano and voice, were polyrhythmic blasts of heavy, contorted funk. On album, The Eraser’s title track is capped by a coda of keyboard processed to the point of sounding hoarse, with tipples of rhythm falling in behind it like red dot-matrix prints. Onstage at Coachella, Flea ran the notes through a throat-clearing bassline, while Waronker and Refosco pricked the rhythm, spreading it like blood through a capillary. When you drive the corners of Thom Yorke’s metal machine music into the earth, those straight lines turn out to curve and wobble like Fela Kuti in his prime. “It was one of the weirdest things for me,” Yorke says. “I started to DJ afterwards, and [it turned out that] a lot of my favorite dance music [was] so close to Afrobeat without me knowing it, or without them even knowing it.”

 

The excitement of that discovery carried over into the Amok sessions. The tickle of guitar that sneaks through opener “Before Your Very Eyes” flips back and forth between a sly mimic of Kuti’s “Zombie” and a stormy patch of angularity. Flea stays deep in the pocket, nudging the beat along, while Waronker and Refosco groove in miniature. In “Stuck Together Pieces,” pinprick taps flit across the channel, while something that sounds like a paint key being scraped over bicycle spokes keeps its own time. Godrich’s production throughout causes the percussion—some of it processed, some of it analog, most of it impossible to untangle—to rise and stand, like a bar graph suddenly come to life. The grooves here have been dug so deep that the discarded dirt begins to cover any semblance of funk in Yorke’s catalogue; Amok nearly renders Kid A’s “The National Anthem” clinical by comparison. 

 

“It’s such a kinetic thing,” Yorke says of the project, “and, to me, ‘Atoms for Peace’ implies this sort-of kinetic energy thing.” It’s an idea Yorke has had for some time. Donwood reports that The Eraser was tentatively titled Atoms for Peace, and that he went so far as to create artwork around the theme. “There was a logo of an atom sort of going around a molecule,” Donwood says, that single speck following its straight line in orbit. Yorke’s father was a nuclear physicist, and the dark side of that work has always entranced the son.

 

The name “Atoms for Peace” is taken from a speech given by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the United Nations in December 1953. The US and USSR were just beginning to grapple in what would become the Cold War, and the speech was intended to quell the world’s fears by demonstrating that nuclear energy could be harnessed for good. “It was actually just an excuse to build great big fucking bombs,” Yorke says. He’s right, but you can’t help noticing Eisenhower’s conflicted tone in the text. “I feel impelled to speak today in a language that in a sense is new,” the president says of atomic weaponry. “One which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use.” He reads like a reluctant messenger, apologizing for the great horror that had been let loose in the world while simultaneously defending the US’s right to nuclear development in the name of self-defense. It’s a cluster of emotions that would show up again years later, when, in his last speech as president, the general would warn us of the military–industrial complex. “If the people of the world are to conduct an intelligent search for peace,” he says in the “Atoms for Peace” speech, “they must be armed with the significant facts of today’s existence.” It might have been propaganda, but, at least on this front, he had a point.

 

 

Yorke, Godrich and Donwood are all in their 40s, and Flea turned 50 in October. They grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, with The Bomb hanging like a pregnant cloud over their childhoods. And yet, Yorke points out, they were protected by dreams of a brighter future. “When we were kids, there was a hope,” he says. “You’d pick up books on the future, and there was hope! We’d all have nuclear jetpacks, all our cars would be electric.” And while his kids might not be growing up with the constant fear of possible instant destruction, they do have to deal with global warming, which produces the quiet fear of assured gradual destruction. “A few years ago he was reading these wildlife magazines,” Yorke says of his son, “and I know they were talking about global warming, and I was worried at what his reaction would be. But he’s grown up with it, and it’s just a part of his life. It freaks me out.”

 

“If you try to walk a straight line in the snow in a snowstorm, [you] will always walk in a circle.” Donwood says this to Yorke and me plainly. “They actually tested people in the desert. It’s not an urban legend, or a rural legend, that people will walk in circles when they’re lost. They really do. Nobody knows why.” Left alone, with grains of sand prickling their face and sticking to the sweat on their chests, people will walk in circles and believe them to be straight lines.

 

“The flipside of Amok is that we still ultimately wanted to make a song album. In a way, we could have quite easily made a load of tripped-out beats with not much on top and put that out, but that really didn’t seem right at the time,” Yorke says. Despite his notational limitations, his was the personality guiding the sessions. “I didn’t want it to be like a band jamming, because that’s the nightmare scenario—it always ends up sounding the same. So you want to push them into a corner or place they would be uncomfortable with, knowing that they’re so good that they’ll just go with it.” Even so, Yorke says, there was no fully realized plan when they headed into the studio. “I’m not going, ‘Oh, you do this,’ and all. I’m very hands-off. I didn’t realize how hands-off I was.” Some of Amok’s sounds came from the transmogrification of Yorke’s laptop sketches. Some ideas didn’t sound right on instruments; some didn’t sound right on machines. “Some things came from a bassline from Flea,” Yorke says. “It was all over the bloody shop, really.”

 

The three-day sessions completed, Yorke, Godrich, Waronker and Donwood retreated to Waronker’s studio just outside of Los Angeles. (“It’s not like a huge studio, it’s a tiny little room and a sunny veranda next door,” Donwood notes. “Probably at smog level.”) Where the grooves coalesced easily, the trio of musicians mostly left the material alone. As for the rest, “It was editing, really,” Yorke says. “We had a whole load of stuff and we built it from there. A lot of it was still very much me and Nigel. Mostly, it’s still that.”

 

While Yorke concedes that Flea had a small hand in the album’s post-production, and Waronker a somewhat larger one, Amok testifies to the sensibilities of its creator and refiner from the first run through. The sprawling jams have been bent until they almost fit into the mold of traditional pop songs, and they’re sprinkled with skwrking and chirping shaved from the top of The Eraser. But more than any laptop trickery, it’s Yorke’s voice that haunts the shadows of Amok’s grooves. He’s unattached, floating through the churn of rhythm created by the band. He stretches his voice like gauze, pulling it apart and making it thinner without it ever breaking, and he wraps it around the living wound. It’s often through that veil that we see the red-hot playing below.

 

At times, though, the voice is pressed down until dots of blood begin to seep through the cotton. The energy released by these collisions, where the lines between man and machine and between pure rhythm and spectral voice are obliterated—that’s where Atoms for Peace flex their full power. “Reverse Running” is a canyon of spindly hi-hat and skitters of snare (“Mauro and Joey found it quite difficult, the rhythm,” Yorke says), but he places his piano at the base and sits there easily, sounding almost like Joni Mitchell as he plays through the hail. On the title track, Yorke dances through a swirl of voices and rattling synth, surrounded by “all the little inkly dinkly repeating phrases in your head that just don’t fuck off,” as he puts it. “Run amok/Run amok/Run amok,” he sings, like a compass in the desert, like an outside hand straightening a line.

 

Because the groove needs to be moderated. “The voice in my head first and foremost says that during times when things are bad, people don’t want to hear it,” Yorke says. “There’s times when we’re open to it as a general population and there’s times when we aren’t. When things are fucking heavy, we don’t want to be reminded. [But] I’m always conscious of the fact that what [Donwood] and I do—what we all do—is to remind them.” Like the complicated scraps that make up The Eraser, Amok is a record of gropings whose foundation was laid not by mathematical writ but by the simple declaration of a sound being good. It’s more of a subjective expression than it is a missive. But it can’t be divorced from the sound of Yorke’s voice, that lonesome advocate singing from within the flood. You don’t need to think in order to feel, but it becomes impossible not to think about what you feel. After all, subjectivity doesn’t preclude the truth. It’s only a way of experiencing it.

 

In December 2009, Yorke found himself at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where he watched in frustration as “the human race [decided] that the global economy is more important than anything else,” as he puts it. “There’s no way ’round it, so how does this make us feel? Do we just go back into ourselves and value the present and the people we’re with—that moment—is that how we deal with it? Is that the right thing to do? Because the consequences of that are actually denial. Or,” he suggests, “do you get sucked up into that mindstream or whatever you want to call it? Because that will fuck you up.” It’s an important question, maybe the only question, and while Yorke is quick to say that he doesn’t think Amok necessarily “has anything to do with this,” he suddenly remarks, “[We] are bewitched by an old-fashioned spell that no one’s found a way of breaking out of.”

 

 

 

 

The lines Donwood cut for Amok’s cover are beautiful and simple, almost machine-clean. Los Angeles is underwater. The lines lap at the base of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and they begin to overwhelm the Frank Gehry–designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. A stretch Hummer tilts toward the sky like the Titanic moments before snapping. Meteorites rain down, consuming Griffith Observatory. Everything seems to be in motion, but the destruction is never consummated. 

 

On the day we speak, a month before the album’s release, Donwood’s work has already begun to set the tone for how people will hear it. “It’s interesting that more people have seen the artwork than have heard the record,” Yorke says. “I kinda like that because in a way that seems like the way it should be.” The way the gentle curves of line play over one another as they cascade through the Hollywood Hills is hypnotic and strangely beautiful. “It’s hard to put it into words,” Yorke says. “There’s not the right words to express that purveying sense of background fear. I couldn’t find—it just wasn’t there. It’s...you know...”

 

On your turntable, in your CD player, on your hard drive, Amok will seem to spin, spin, spin, but the eye that runs through those grooves of data is drawing a straight line. This is really happening.  F

This article is from FILTER Issue 51